On Black Friday, Michele Pred joined the throngs at the Emeryville IKEA, but she wasn't exactly shopping.
Instead, the Berkeley artist slipped into the wall-art section and covertly placed copies of signed prints she had designed into the racks. By the time the store closed Saturday, all 10 prints had been picked up either by IKEA shoppers or a few happy fans of her work who learned about the opportunity on Pred's Facebook page.
Pred, 44, was "shopdropping," a practice that has a storied history with artists in the Bay Area and beyond. Sort of the opposite of shoplifting, shopdropping involves leaving goods in unsuspecting stores to sell to unsuspecting customers to make a statement in the name of art.
In Pred's case, the statement is "You Are What You Buy," which also happens to be the title of the prints she shopdropped, a commentary on excessive consumerism on a day where excessive consumerism practically is celebrated.
It's not a thematic stretch for Pred, a graduate of California College of the Arts in Oakland, whose large body of work explores themes with "cultural/political concepts," she says, such as consumerism and fear. Pred gained national attention in 2002 when she made art out of knives and nail-cutters snagged by security at local airports. In 2006 she attempted to demystify the cannabis plant by growing one in a San Francisco gallery.
Prints of an American flag that Pred fashioned from airport-confiscated pocket knives sell for $500. If you fancied one of the 10 pieces she dropped enough to buy one at IKEA, for a mere $8 you got a limited-edition, hand-signed print that sells in galleries for $200.
"One part of this piece was that I wanted to make art accessible and affordable," she says, explaining that she copied the sales bar code of another $8 print and placed it on her print so employees at the checkout counter were none the wiser. "For $8, you have a signed, limited-edition print."
IKEA, by the way, unknowingly pocketed the money on the sale. Mona Liss, IKEA's U.S. spokeswoman, said in a statement that "IKEA only sells IKEA products through our global distribution process. IKEA has not endorsed the sale of this product. Nor are we aware of this artist and her 'staged' presence."
Pred, a teacher at California College of the Arts, received no compensation. She says that as a conceptual artist, she valued the opportunity to make a statement about society over the chance to make money. The shopdrop itself, in fact, is part of the piece.
However, the story is more layered and complicated than just a pretty picture being secretly sold at a chain store. The print itself is a yellow-and-blue 2-D bar code image that, when scanned by cutting-edge technology, reads "You Are What You Buy."
Popular in Japan and Europe, 2-D bar codes are physical hyperlinks that can be read by special programs such as Upcode on Internet-connected cell phones like iPhones. Users take a picture of the blocky bar code on, say, a magazine page and their cell phone will pull up a Web site that gives the user more information. The December issue of Esquire magazine has a 2-D bar code on the box that actor Robert Downey Jr. is sitting on. It takes you to online interactive videos and links.
In Pred's case, taking a picture of her IKEA-dropped work sends users to www.youarewhatyoubuy.us, a Web page with that same simple statement centered on the screen. The image is yellow and blue because Pred is of Swedish heritage and grew up in an IKEA-furnished home near one of the stores.
While some lucky IKEA shoppers got an art deal they did not even know about, some of the prints were purchased by friends and collectors who saw Pred's announcement of her project on Facebook. Meg Shiffler, of the San Francisco Arts Commission gallery, said she would not have been able to afford a Pred piece otherwise.
"Buying it was a way to have a piece of Michele's and celebrate this amazing project," she says.
Meanwhile, a black-and-white embroidered work with the same hyperlink is up at the Open Source Embroidery exhibition at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art in San Francisco until Jan. 24. And "IKEA" prints can be had for $200 at the San Francisco Electric Works Gallery. Go to www.sfelectricworks.com to learn more.
On Wednesday, Pred dropped off more "You Are What You Buy" pieces at an IKEA store outside of Miami as she participated in Art Basel Miami Beach, an international visual arts festival.
So buyer beware, and perhaps be happy: That $8 poster you took home last week could have more of a story to it than you imagined.